How to Become an American (A Guide for the British) by Jonathan Sawday

On almost any Friday morning in downtown St. Louis, a short ceremony takes place which is also rehearsed in cities across America. Common as it is, this is a ceremony that (I guess) few native-born Americans will have ever witnessed. And yet, this ritual perhaps takes us to the very core of what it is to be an American in the twenty-first century.

The event is the “Naturalization Ceremony” during which new American citizens pledge themselves (in the words of the Oath of Allegiance) to “support and defend the constitution and laws of the United States of America.” The actual form of the ritual – the “liturgy” one might say if that word was not supremely inappropriate for this deeply secular event – is laid down by US Citizenship and Immigration Services – a branch of the often reviled Department of Homeland Security.

Here is what happens. The presiding judge opens the session (a reminder that this is a formal, judicial, occasion). A song is sung (usually a patriotic anthem such as “America the Beautiful”), a guest speaker (a local civic dignitary) makes a short speech, and then the “motion” is introduced by a US attorney to admit the petitioners to citizenship. The oath is administered, collectively. Then follows what is, in so many ways, the heart of the ceremony. Each new citizen is invited to rise, and tell all those assembled – the court officers, their fellow newly-created citizens, and their family or friends who have come to support them – about where they have come from, and what they are now doing in America. After they have finished, after the pledge of allegiance to the flag has been given, the National Anthem is sung. Finally, each new American steps forward to be given their certificate of Citizenship, to shake hands with the judge, and then have their photograph taken before an American flag.

This particular Friday, I had been invited to attend the Naturalization Ceremony of a friend – a fellow Brit – who had, at last, surmounted the daunting bureaucracy involved in transforming her “status” from “permanent Resident” (popularly known as green card holder) to “citizen.” Like me, my friend, had travelled the long, winding, and expensive road which any foreigner who lives (legally) in the US has to travel: visa applications, interviews, photographs, fingerprinting, background checks, proof that you have a job, employer’s letters, references, medical examinations, and the endless filling in and filing of forms. Unlike me, however, my friend – a research scientist – had lived in the US long enough as a “resident alien” (as we foreigners living in here are also known) to jump the last hurdle, and apply to become a Naturalized American – or (as the judge reminded us at my friend’s ceremony) a “full citizen with just the same rights (and responsibilities) as any other American.”

My friend, Audrey, is Scottish. She was born, lived, and studied, in a city that I know very well – Glasgow on the banks of the River Clyde. Her sense of being a Scot is visceral. She has never lost her Scottish accent. She has that distinctively Scottish sense of wryly ironic humour. Like most Scots she’s fond of a dram; her family still live in Scotland. She had followed the Scottish Independence debate which took place in our country last year with real passion. She had also thought long and hard about taking this step. “America” she said “has been good to me… but I’ll always be a Scot.” That gave me pause. How does one (as it seemed to me) renounce that most abstract and yet profoundly important thing – one’s sense of belonging to a particular group, or tribe (in her case, we might say clan) and forge a new identity within a new group? This, of course, is the territory so memorably mapped out in the late Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities – the sense of belonging to an abstract, but no less real entity or community of deeply shared interest and feeling. But, isn’t there something here (as I joked with Audrey when we talked about her decision) faintly treasonous? “The Queen won’t be pleased, when she hears about this, Audrey” I said to her. “Och, Sod that!” she laughed. Scots have always been natural rebels, I reflected.

On the day of Audrey’s oath-taking, we were still reacting to news of the latest mass shootings in San Bernardino, California. The demagoguery of the Republican presidential primaries had reached new highs (or lows). America, it seemed to me, had never been such a fearful place in which to live – the country seemed petrified by threats, whether real or imagined, internal or external. Her own citizens seemed to be turning on one another, not only in the depressing litany of mass shootings, which are now unique in the developed world, but in attacks on any vestige of the progressive era. America had become, the economists were telling us, one of the most unequal societies on earth (rivalled, it should be noted, only by the UK). “What a day to become an American,” I thought as I dressed (a formal suit, I thought, would be about right for this event), grabbed a coffee, and then drove down to the District Court House, bracing myself for what (I was sure) was going to be a couple of hours of unashamed and blustery flag-waving, which would put me in a foul temper for the rest of the day.

How very wrong I was proved to be.

The Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse, home of The United States District Court of the Eastern District of Missouri is not an attractive building. It rears twenty-nine stories above down-town St. Louis, an exercise in neo-modernist federal brutalism. The largest single court-house in the United States, it reminds me of some of the government buildings I have seen in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. But, inside, on the twenty-eighth floor, where the Naturalization Ceremony was being convened, the light-filled, airy, foyer “offered” (as realtors like to say) breath-taking views over the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the Mississippi river, and the haze-filled, post-industrial wreckage that is East St. Louis, on the far side of the river. In the foyer, high above the city, we gathered, about a hundred of us: the fifty or so oath-takers, and their friends and families. The atmosphere was subdued, a little nervous. People were taking photographs of one another. Some clutched small American flags.

We filed into the courtroom, the about-to-be Americans seated at the front, we, the witnesses, rather like family friends at a wedding, behind them. We rose as the Judge – the honourable Carol E. Jackson entered. Judge Jackson is a softly-spoken woman of quiet authority. She smiled at us. We smiled back. Later, I learned that Judge Jackson has had a distinguished legal career. She had been appointed to her position by President Bush – not George W, but George H.W. – an appointment that was confirmed by the US Senate in 1992. She was the first female judge to be appointed to the Eastern District Court of Missouri. Judge Jackson has short cropped, steel-grey hair, her voluminous black robes emphasised her diminutive stature. Judge Jackson is an African-American.


How many black judges are there in Britain? A few? Hardly any?[1] But this judge was (I assumed) a descendent of people who had, just a few generations in the past, been bought and sold only a hundred or so yards from where we were now sitting, on the steps of the Old Court House of St. Louis – the public slave market of the city prior to the Civil War. How ironic, I thought, that an African-American woman was now charged with the task of administering the oath of allegiance to the constitution of a country which had once been torn apart, in its struggle over the “peculiar institution” that had so cruelly manifested itself, every day, on the steps of the old St. Louis Courthouse. It was the first of a number of ironies I was about to discover that morning.

The judge’s remarks were almost inaudible (somebody, I thought, needs to turn up her microphone). But, she struck a certain tone, unerringly. She was serious, rather than sombre. She told us of how this ritual was unlike any other that customarily takes place in her court room. In civil and criminal cases, she said, the court is necessarily a place of opposition and confrontation, where truth is contested and lives changed, for good or ill, forever. Though this was a life-changing event for those who were about to swear their allegiance to the Republic, here there was no confrontation, no charge and counter-charge, and no penalty. This was, rather, a moment of welcome.

Patriotic tub-thumping, of the kind that I was expecting, would have been beneath the dignity of Judge Jackson, as she turned over the proceedings to the guest speaker – a young lawyer, a Mr Edward P. Vrtis. Mr Vrtis looked (the phrase rather unkindly came to my mind) sleekly well-groomed, in a way that I tend to associate with ambitious young lawyers. I sat back, waiting for the strident assertion of Americanness that I was expecting. “Welcome, my fellow Americans…” he began. Here we go, I thought.

I was about to be very disappointed.

Although I didn’t know this as I settled down to attend to his address, Mr Vrtis had not been a lawyer for very long. A judicial law clerk, he graduated from law school just a year or so ago. Before turning to the law, Mr Vrtis had been a teacher in the Baltimore City public school system, where he had taught his students American Government and US History. I think Mr Vrtis must have been a marvellous teacher. For, over the next ten minutes, in deftly crafted and thoughtful words, Mr Vrtis gave all of us sitting in Judge Jackson’s court room a memorable lesson in what the ancient Romans would have called civic virtue – what it is that constitutes citizenship. He reminded us that not all Americans had come to these shores willingly – some came “by force rather than choice,” and in this, he also reminded us of how the Republic often failed to live up to its ideals. “This country is not perfect” he said “its history is conflicted.” Turning to the new citizens arrayed before him he smiled: “But we now have you to make it better.” A nice touch, I thought.

As I listened to Mr Vrtis, I warmed to him. But then, this son of Polish-Czech immigrants (he told us a little about himself) canvassed the one thing that I (in my ignorance) would have thought unmentionable on such an occasion, but which had plagued my friend, Audrey, as she thought about her Scottish past. Indeed, he made that very thing the center piece of his speech: how does one reconcile the taking on of a new allegiance with those dense webs of kinship and cultural affiliation – Anderson’s “imagined community ” but here comprised out of the shadows of a former life – with what is now being renounced?

Most countries have some kind of naturalization oath or pledge or affirmation, by which new citizens announce their allegiance to the state of which they have chosen to become a member. The American naturalization oath is unusually prolix, running to some one hundred and forty words. By contrast, the equivalent Italian oath (the shortest I have read) simply asks new Italians to “swear to be faithful to the Republic and to observe the Constitution and the laws of the State.” And that’s it. In a country renowned for its garrulousness, in Italy you proclaim your citizenship with an almost Spartan economy of language. And, by and large, the same is true of most other oaths of citizenship that I have read – India, Canada, Norway, and many other states resolve the question of how their new citizens should proclaim their citizenship with a brief statement. Only we British manage to make matters confusing. Britain requires an oath (or affirmation) by which “faithful and true allegiance” is sworn to the sovereign and her “heirs and successors,” and a pledge of loyalty to the “United Kingdom” is given. This pledge constitutes an undertaking to “respect [Britain’s] rights and freedoms… uphold its democratic values… observe its laws faithfully” and fulfill the (unspecified) “duties and obligations” required of a British citizen. The British pledge is, if you like, a kind of bureaucratic footnote, by which the question of subject-hood and citizenship is carefully side-stepped. It’s a somewhat typical muddying of the constitutional waters, which might be expected of a country that (as I am constantly reminded by American friends) has no single written constitution.

But, the US naturalization ceremony is not only an affirmation of belonging, but it also contains an important element of renunciation. Indeed, the formal legal title of the American Oath of Allegiance is “The Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance.” In this America (as in so many things, for better or worse) is unusual. America requires her new citizens to give something up, to the extent that renunciation is as important (if not more important) than the proclamation of a new loyalty. I have been unable to find any other example of a country whose citizenship oath begins, as does the American oath, with a rejection rather than an affirmation. Here is how the American oath begins:

“I hereby declare on oath that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen…”

Sitting in Judge Jackson’s courtroom, listening to America’s newest citizens repeat these words together, I was fascinated by the rhythm of these phrases. I teach literature – British seventeenth-century literature mainly – so that words and their historic roots have long been my professional concern. Later, pondering this ornately worded act of renunciation, I was struck by the obvious redundancy of language (“absolutely and entirely… renounce and abjure…allegiance and fidelity… subject or citizen”), the grammatical over-complexity (“of whom or which… heretofore”), and the archaic formulations – how many countries, in the twenty-first century, are governed by a “potentate?” And I kept hearing distant echoes of other texts, which I couldn’t quite place. Was I detecting the cadences of John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem, Paradise Lost in that recitation of “foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty?” In Milton’s poem we read of “Powers and Dominions… Thrones and Imperial powers.” These are the words with which Milton’s anti-hero Satan, and, later, the fallen angel Beelzebub, address the infernal conclave of exiled rebels, banished from heaven to linger for all eternity in hell. And Beelzebub continues “these Titles now / Must we renounce…” which reminded me that a little-known clause of the law governing the administration of the American naturalization oath requires the “express renunciation of any… title or order of nobility.” “Well, Audrey,” I had said to my friend on discovering this clause “it’s goodbye to Lady Strathclyde.” “Shucks!” was her response.

It appealed to me that the great English republican poet and defender of regicide, John Milton, might have been appropriated by the framers of the oath of allegiance (the standardization of the oath was formulated in 1906 and then amended twice, in 1929 and 1950). But in this (as in so many things that Friday morning) I was, once again, wrong.

America’s Oath of Allegiance is based on a quite different text though one that was indeed imported from the British Isles. In 1535, following the protestant English reformation and the sundering of the spiritual and temporal link with the Roman Catholic Church, the English parliament passed the “Oath of Supremacy.” The Oath of Supremacy was the means by which the King – Henry VIII – sought to ensure the loyalty of his counsellors and subjects to the Crown. The Oath was (just like the American oath) an act of renunciation as much as it was an act of allegiance. Here it is in part:

And that no forraine Prince, Person, Prelate, State or Potentate, hath or ought to have any Jurisdiction, Power, Superiorities, Preeminence or Authority… within this Realme… therefore, I do utterly renounce and forsake all Jurisdictions, Powers, Superiorities, or Authorities; and do promise that from henchforth I shall beare faith and true Allegiance to the Kings Highnesse, his Heires and lawfull Successors…

“Oh the irony!” I thought, as I learned of the distant origins of the form of words with which new Americans are asked to proclaim their shuffling off of old loyalties and their assumption of a new set of allegiances. A sixteenth-century English despot – a King of whom it has been said that conversation with him must have been like making small talk with Stalin – was the progenitor of the words which we were hearing on the twenty-eighth floor of the St. Louis courthouse that Friday morning. For, the English Oath of Supremacy was also an act of exclusion, in that it was explicitly targeted at those English men and women who refused the spiritual dominion of the protestant crown. And, for generations, it would be used to fuel anti-Catholic sentiment in England, and, later, in Scotland and Ireland. Indeed, it was the refusal to take this oath, which had led Sir Thomas More — that man for all seasons – first to the Tower of London and then to the executioner’s block.

But in America this same oath had been re-cast. There are good historical reasons why a nation founded by rebels (as they once were) and sustained by vast waves of transportation and emigration over oceanic distances should have placed so much store on the act of forswearing her citizens’ former loyalties. Before the calamities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, few, if any, countries in the modern world have had to work with such a potentially destabilizing, hybridic, population – a population which was as ethnically diverse as it was linguistically and culturally cacophonous. How would that hazy sense of “Americanness” be forged let alone sustained, unless her millions of new citizens were explicitly required to forego those former ties of nationhood by which they had lived (usually rather less than willingly), whether in the shtetls of the Czar’s former empire, in the sun-drenched towns and villages of the Mezzogiorno, or in the slums of Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow, or the East End of London?

We Brits have a long tradition of switching sides, of batting for the other team – Bob Hope, Liz Taylor, Peter Lawford, W. H. Auden, Greer Garson, Olivia de Havilland, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, are some of the more famous stars and celebrities who have trod the naturalization path. Most British people that I know who have become US citizens take this act of renunciation with a pinch of salt, a kind of mental (and even sometimes physical) crossing of the fingers. In this they are coming perilously close (it seems to me) to performing that act of “mental reservation” (what used to be called “equivocation,” of which the Jesuits were, famously, said to be adepts) that is explicitly forbidden in the concluding phrases of the Oath of Allegiance. But America does not seem to mind too much. America does not (as some erroneously believe) require you to give up any former passport once you are the proud possessor of a blue passport. The only thing it requires is that you leave or enter the country as an American. A holder of two passports – say a British and an American one, as my friend Audrey was now about to become – in fact joins one of the most privileged clubs in the world. She can live and work in two of the three most economically powerful blocks in the world – the European Union with its population of 500 million and the United States, with its 320 million citizens. No wonder Russian oligarchs and Australian TV moguls find ways to inhabit both domains.

All of which brings us back to Mr Vrtis and his carefully worded address to America’s newest citizens that Friday morning in St. Louis. For, rather than evade this problem of the casting off of one loyalty and the assumption of another, Mr Vrtis positively embraced its complexities. Urging (as did Judge Jackson) his new fellow-citizens to participate in the political process, Mr Vrtis explained what this act of renunciation entailed: “America is not a melting pot” he said “but a mixing bowl.” I confess that the distinction was rather lost on me. But, he continued: “Do not forget your heritage! Keep it alive! Educate us, and your children, and their children about the places you have come from…. treasure your food, your language, your culture…show us your photographs, keep the record…” “America” Mr Vrtis told us “does NOT ask you to give up your past.” Mr Vrtis was unfolding for us a paradox of which, before listening to him, I had not really been aware: that to be truly “American” you have to somehow be an elsewhere-American. I couldn’t (and still can’t) think of any better way of putting it other than this clumsy formulation.

Later, after they had been administered their oath of renunciation and allegiance, each of these new citizens was asked to stand up, and tell us where they had come from, and what they were now doing in America. Twenty-nine different countries were represented in the room that Friday morning in St. Louis. They had come from Ethiopia, Somalia, Gambia, Iraq, Mexico, Albania, Bosnia, India, The Philippines, Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Burma, and (of course) Scotland. As they stood up, some spoke a little of how they had come to be here, echoes (I guessed) of much larger stories. A gentleman from Ethiopia, dressed in a shabby suit, with a small paper American flag in his breast pocket, told us of how proud he was to be here. A Bosnian lady, dressed to the nines, spoke forcefully of running her own business. A self-confident and charming man from the Dominican Republic reminded us (to much laughter) that his country did more than just produce baseball players. Many of these speakers had only a halting grasp of English – the naturalization process includes a spoken and written English test but to term it rudimentary would be to flatter it. On some faces, there was a look of deep anxiety as they rose and spoke in public in this way – perhaps for the very first time in their lives. For some, I sensed that this public explanation of who they were and where they had come from was an ordeal. I wondered if they had not, perhaps, grasped that this was merely a form of words, a ritual, a ceremony, and not some final cruel test which, at the very last moment they could still fail. The non-English speakers in the group were willed on by their friends or family members who were sat behind them, prompting them with English words when their fragile grasp of the language of America had all but collapsed.

We British often pride ourselves on our public rituals, even if we find them faintly absurd, or anachronistic, or even incomprehensible: how many of us understand the constitutional symbolism of the ritualized incivility which is the slamming of the doors of the House of Commons in the face of the functionary known as “Black Rod” at the state opening of parliament? We’re good (so we tell ourselves) at pomp and circumstance, civic pageantry, even if many of us moan at the jingoism and militarism which is almost inseparably connected to so many of our public events. But our more private and (I’d suggest) more meaningful rituals – weddings, funerals, civil marriage ceremonies, bar- or bat-mitzvahs, a retirement party for a colleague, a family reunion – are invariably accompanied by words by which we seek (not always successfully) to invest the moment with some more enduring significance. These can be emotional occasions. But very few ceremonies that I have ever attended has been quite as emotional for me – a non-participant, a guest, mere observer – as those minutes during which these strangers explained to us and to one another, often in halting English, how it was that they had come to be in this place on this particular day. I was, I confess, very close to tears as I listened. Later, I learned from my American friends who had also witnessed this ceremony for the first time that they, too, had been as moved as I had been by what they had witnessed.

Later, after the photographs had been taken, with each American being firmly grasped by the widely smiling Judge Jackson in front of the union flag, after a few more small paper flags had indeed been self-consciously and rather hesitantly waived, after we had gathered to celebrate my friend’s “treason” (as I still insisted on terming it –perhaps the joke was wearing a little thin) over a glass of champagne and slices of cake, I reflected on what I had learned.

I have lived in America as a foreigner, now, for six years. But, I still don’t really understand it. I had thought, during and after the ceremony, of these new citizens as being the fortunate ones. No matter their individual talents, their skills and learning, their determination, and (perhaps) their sheer luck, they had all crossed some indefinable border – but for them the border was mental as much as it was physical. Hundreds of thousands of people still desperately want to come to America. They die in her South-western deserts in the hope that, like these fortunate few, they can pursue that old cliché, the so-called American dream – a dream which Judge Jackson reminded us “does not guarantee monetary wealth,” and which (in turn) reminded me that, amongst the inalienable rights granted to these new Americans was also the right to be poor, to be homeless, and to be subject to the brutal callousness of the “market.” Judge Jackson, in her peroration to her new compatriots, had spoken of how she admired the “bravery you have shown in becoming a citizen of this country” – a country which she memorably described as “this sprawling unruly place that is America.” Well, yes and no, I thought. You shouldn’t need to be brave to assume a new nationality. You shouldn’t need to combat such casually cruel terms such as “economic migrants… illegals… anchor-babies.”

For, looming, unbidden, behind this federal ceremony, was another America altogether, and one that has been haunting us for months. As I write these words, that other America seems (perhaps briefly… who knows?) to be in the ascendant. The other America speaks of walls being built around her borders, of expulsions, of internment, of identity documents, even (how Thomas Jefferson must be revolving in his grave) of religious tests. This other America encourages fear, and feeds off hatred. It spawns paranoid fantasies of a federal government “at war” with its own citizens. It converts, shamelessly, the understandable fear of economic deprivation, of uncertainty over the future, into a hatred of the “other” while it negates the crucial essence of America – that America is the home and abode of otherness, as it has been since its very foundation. Worst of all, it envisages two classes of citizens, with some Americans forming a less perfect union than others – an idea which Judge Jackson and Mr. Vrtis would (I’d like to think) perceive not only as profoundly un-American, but also profoundly and morally wrong.

What I had witnessed that Friday morning, was, indeed, a version of the better America. The African-American judge and the Polish-Czech-American lawyer had, quietly and with great dignity, laid out before us what becoming an American should be (and still is, just…). All of us who live in this frightened land – Americans and non-Americans – could learn something of this better America. Unfortunately, those who might learn most from their words, but whose barbarisms we attend to day by day in this grim season, were not present on that winter morning in St. Louis. And if they had been there, I fear they would have chosen not to understand.

[1] For the record, in 1998, just 10% of UK judges were women, and fewer than 2% come from ethnic minorities. By contrast, in President Obama’s first two years in office, nearly 70% of those confirmed to the federal judiciary were women and / or members of minority communities. These are statistics of which we British should be ashamed, and of which Americans should feel proud.

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